Tricking Your Readers

The attention grabbing technique of tricking your readers into making assumptions by not giving them the whole truth.

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Tricking your readers can be done successfully by only providing them with a small amount of the whole truth. They then presume this is the entirety of the information on the subject and therefore form a natural conclusion, with no cause to question this conclusion. In the mind of the reader, the assumption they have made is small but absolute. Then, once some time has passed and you’ve allowed all the information to be revealed, the reader will get a small shock to find they were so very wrong in their judgement and be paying much closer attention to your story from then on.

This technique should not be as plot-flipping as a full-on plot twist, because it is only a minor offshoot of the main bulk of story. That being said, it should still have the same accuracy in its foreshadowing as a plot twist to allow readers to understand its possibility, and not feel it has been thrown in from nowhere. This tricking of readers will barely interrupt the main plot of your story but will successfully pull in any dwindling attention spans, plunging them back into your writing.

The most clear-cut example of this technique I have found is in the American TV series Big Little Lies, between main character Madeline and the local theatre director, Joseph.

A few episodes in we see both of these ‘happily’ married characters chatting together in Joseph’s office, overjoyed at how they have just won the legal battle to run their slightly controversial play. Joseph quickly leans in and kisses Madeline. The kiss lasts for a few heated, shirt-unbuttoning-and-bottom-grabbing moments before Madeline pulls away, slaps Joseph and runs off.

We, the viewers, make the assumption that both characters had got caught up in the jubilant moment and had made a one-off mistake. We run with that presumption through the entirety of the episode until, right in the last scene, Joseph surprises Madeline in a car park. (Mild spoilers ahead!) Their revealing and surprising dialogue explains that the two of them had actually engaged in a full-on affair the year before – a revelation that, although it didn’t make a huge dent in the plot, kept me engrossed on every detail for the rest of the season to ensure I didn’t make such a mistake again.

Another example where an author intentionally allows readers to know only part of a truth to lead them into jumping to one single conclusion is in the novel The Host by Stephenie Meyer. Aliens have invaded Earth and Melanie, the protagonist, has made it to a small secret community where her brother and boyfriend are hiding. The only problem is that Melanie shares her body with a female alien called Wanderer who is luckily empathetic to the whole situation. For obviously reasons, this unusual body sharing doesn’t sit too well with most of the human survivors at the hide-out, with one in particular, Kyle, trying his best to kill her at every opportunity.

He hates her because she is an alien. Her kind are responsible for the body-snatching of the majority of the world’s population, and he wants to protect the few survivors who remain from being located – this was the exact assumption that Meyer wanted readers to conclude. (Mild spoilers ahead!) It is only much later in the story that we realise the true cause of Kyle’s hatred for Melenie/Wanderer when he brings the unconscious body of his once girlfriend to the hide-out. She has been fully taken over by her alien and Kyle’s jealously stems from this, from the unfairness that his girlfriend wasn’t strong enough to fight against her alien invader and come looking for him in the same way that Melanie was able to communicate, suppress and convince Wanderer to turn against her own kind and decide to track her boyfriend and brother down.

Meyer’s attention-grabbing and emotive trick allowed readers to finally understand and even emphasise with Kyle and his choice of brutish behaviour, but it was left out of the movie adaptation of the novel. This further conveys my point that the technique of tricking a reader shouldn’t be plot-impactful, but merely a quirky detail to give a little poke at readers, helping them to stay focused and interested in your story.

“Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me.”

If you do choose to keep your readers engaged in your writing by tricking them, only do so once, perhaps twice at a push. If you continuously trick your readers they will start to expect it, looking out for each and every detail instead of paying attention to the main plot line. They will likely also begin to get a little bit annoyed with the trickery – being fooled once is acceptable, human, but any more than that and it’s just embarrassing.

Rebecca Delphine is an aspiring Young Adult author from Thanet.

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